‘A little jewel in North Carolina’: Getting to know resident conductor Jose-Luis Novo

by Jordan Green

Conductor Jos’-Luis Novo splits his time most of the year between the Annapolis Symphony in Maryland, where he lives, and the Binghamton Philharmonic in New York. He takes care of administrative tasks for the Binghamton Philharmonic from his home in Maryland, but notes that technology has not quite reached the stage where he can conduct rehearsals through video and audio conferencing.

There will be no such geographic schizophrenia when Novo arrives in Greensboro, bivouacs in the faculty hall at Guilford College and begins his 12th season as resident conductor for the Eastern Music Festival.

The experience is intensive and hands-on for both faculty and students, and Novo loves it.

“The thing that attracts me about EMF is that I am there for the entire time,” the 42-year-old conductor says. “I even go to the cafeteria, and eat with the students. I like interacting with them beyond the rehearsal. It allows me to know better how they think and how they feel about music, how important music is to them.”

The Eastern Music Festival is both of and apart from the city that hosts it and gains prestige from its association. The faculty, guest performers and student musicians are sequestered in their rigorous regimen of rehearsals and concerts, with regular appearances at Guilford’s Dana Auditorium and occasional one-offs in halls around the city and the region. The baseball games and the downtown bar scene that make for a social life in a sleepy Southern city do not really figure in the experience of this priesthood.

“There is not really time to do anything else,” Novo says. “I oftentimes get up at 6 a.m. to be ready for the 9 a.m. rehearsal. 9 a.m. is a bit early for most musicians. You are running rehearsals, or attending meetings, or giving lessons or attending the concerts. It is very intense concentration. You don’t have a lot of free time to do other things.”

The Eastern Music Festival is unique in the amount of exposure students are afforded to faculty, Novo says, with a ratio of two to one. Some concerts mix students with professional musicians, which provides a different level of experience. That’s a mandate of Music Director Gerard Schwarz, and it’s one Novo says he heartily supports.

Novo, who left his native Spain at the age of 19 to study music at Yale University, says that the diversity of the faculty and student body is part of what makes the Eastern Music Festival such a distinct pleasure.

Faculty members have come from France, Brazil and various Asian countries.

“We have had students from Taiwan who were not very fluent in English,” Novo says. “In music, one of the beauties of it is that music is a language without words. You can communicate without expressing words. Even if you have language barriers with certain people, it has never been a problem in music making. It makes more exciting music. You really have to challenge yourself more than if you were to put it in words. People say music is a universal language, and that’s where that comes from.”

Although faculty members take every program seriously, Novo says he’s particularly excited about conducting a recital of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring — what he calls “one of the masterpieces of the 20 th century” — at Dana Auditorium on July 9. The concert features pianists Yoshikazu Nagai and Gideon Rubin.

“That’s a composition that brings about an incredible amount of energy from the players,” Novo says. “It’s going to be pretty incredible.”

The Eastern Music Festival may be a somewhat rarified community, but it’s also distinctly of Greensboro.

“For me, EMF is a very special place, maybe because I’ve done it for so many years,” Novo says. “It’s like a little jewel in North Carolina as it concerns the arts and performance of top-quality classical music. I think the community recognizes that. Sometimes its good to hear that when it comes from a person who comes from a different place and a different country, because we’re more objective.”